For the second consecutive season, the promise of a great start to the MLS campaign devolved into a relentlessly brutal summer and fall that saw Orlando City set new club marks for futility since joining the top flight prior to 2015. The Lions began the season with injuries and suspensions, then put together a club record six straight wins before setting a new club mark for consecutive losses, with nine, and ultimately finishing the year in a 2-20-3 free fall.
A year ago I wrote about how the Lions squandered a 6-1-0 start to the 2017 season and eventually collapsed and it was nearly the same story in 2018 — only worse. So how did it happen (again)?
Orlando City GM Niki Budalic and then-coach Jason Kreis overhauled the roster in the off-season and nearly every move seemed like a good one. The club brought in a variety of players who seemed to offer improvement across every position group. The attack was bolstered with the additions of veterans Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram from top Eastern Conference rivals. A Young Designated Player was signed in the person of Josué Colmán, who was expected to be ready to step in and play right away despite being a teenager.
The SuperDraft brought in exciting rookie Chris Mueller and the Lions took a chance that Brazilian Stefano Pinho could translate two NASL Golden Boot-winning efforts to the MLS level and that another year of pro soccer would have Richie Laryea and Pierre Da Silva ready to contribute when needed. Additionally, the club took a flier on promising former LA Galaxy Homegrown Player Jose Villarreal. The lack of striker depth was obvious behind Dom Dwyer, but, through some combination of Pinho, Mueller, Meram, and Colmán, it seemed there were players who could fill in as a second striker in Kreis’ 4-4-2 or a shape change to a 4-2-3-1 could mitigate the issue.
In the defensive midfield, the club signed former MLS star Oriol Rosell, a standout on a championship team with Sporting Kansas City, who seemed to be the perfect player to play the bottom of the diamond midfield or partner with Yoshimar Yotún in central midfield. With Will Johnson, Cristian Higuita, and Tony Rocha on the roster, defensive midfield seemed set with both talent and depth.
The back line, a problem area for the club since joining MLS, was given a lot of attention. Fullback strength was added through presumed new starter Mohamed El-Munir and depth was added in RJ Allen on the right side. Donny Toia could slide into a backup role on the left in a battle with PC behind El-Munir. The club brought in multiple center backs in Bundesliga starting caliber defender Lamine Sané, MLS veteran Chris Schuler, and journeyman Amro Tarek — a player with international experience with Egypt. It seemed some combination would partner well with Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter to form a solid MLS back line.
Even more depth was added by re-signing former MLS Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers and trading for promising rookie Cam Lindley. The roster seemed formidable, but the obvious problem was getting all the new faces to jell.
But nothing seemed to go right in 2018. It began with late arrivals and key preseason injuries — notably to Dwyer and Rosell — along with a two-game suspension for Kljestan due to an incident in the previous year’s playoffs while he was with New York.
Despite that, Orlando earned a dramatic late draw in the season opener on a Pinho goal while the Lions were down a man for a significant portion of the match. A close loss to Minnesota United and a road defeat at New York City were concerning but not overly so.
Then things started to click. Players began to return to the lineup and the club went on a six-game run from March 31-May 6, beating four eventual 2018 playoff teams in that span. The loss that snapped the streak was a well-played match against Atlanta United that saw an iffy penalty on Higuita and a few other questionable decisions figure heavily in a 2-1 final. Then came another narrow 2-1 loss — this time on the road at Toronto on late mistakes by El-Munir and Johnson that allowed the Reds to steal all three points near the end of normal time. The third consecutive 2-1 loss was a late dagger from distance by Alan Gordon against the Chicago Fire in another match in which Orlando mostly performed well, but couldn’t quite finish.
Those results weren’t good but at least the performances were there. Then the wheels fell off.
By this time, Meram’s struggles to find his form were coming to a head and injuries started to pop up again en masse. It got so bad that the club’s fourth center back, Chris Schuler, played through a broken arm and Kreis was playing a center back pairing of Allen and Rocha. In addition, Yotún departed for World Cup duty with Peru. It was the perfect storm, and Orlando lost by multiple goals in six consecutive league games, including scores of 3-0, 5-2, 3-0, 2-0, 4-0, and 4-1. Before that streak ended, Orlando had run Kreis out of town while the club still lingered above the playoff line and just as some of those injured stars were returning to either form or the lineup.
Since there was no immediate replacement, the Lions struggled under interim coach Bobby Murphy, falling further off the pace. By the time James O’Connor took the helm, Orlando was below the line and the losses were piling up.
O’Connor had to quickly deal with a Meram situation that had become untenable and figure out what the players he had could do and which ones were willing to buy in. A 2-1 win over Toronto FC in O’Connor’s home debut on July 14 offered promise, with only a consolation goal conceded at the death marring a complete performance.
That was it. From that point on the club finished on a 1-11-3 skid and lost in every way imaginable, and at least two that weren’t fathomable at all (at D.C. and Columbus). Meram was shipped back to Columbus, the club added center back Shane O’Neill and defender/midfielder Carlos Ascues, and did nothing to address the attack, possibly owing to being up against the cap or just not being able to land the players the Lions wanted.
Nobody seemed to have the answers. The front office assured fans and media that the roster was not the problem, hence the firing of Kreis. The assurance was that the next coach could win with the players in place and no major rebuild would be necessary. Either the front office vastly overrated the work done in the off-season or hired a coach who could not, in fact, win with the roster in place. But it’s difficult to see how O’Connor could field a workable lineup with such a dearth of attacking talent — because by then it was obvious that Pinho had not adjusted to the MLS level, Mueller had been struggling after a promising start, no replacement for Meram was brought in, and Colmán was obviously not ready to play significant minutes.
O’Connor was playing interesting lineups comprised mainly of defensive midfielders with the hope that Yotún and the fullbacks could replace the missing creativity. They certainly tried (Yotún reached double digit assists and Sutter scored three goals) but usually Dwyer seemed on an island, stranded far from his service.
As I write this, we’re awaiting the news of which Lions will have their contract options picked up and which will not. Budalic has stated there is some roster flexibility but the top end of the roster seems etched in stone. Rumor has it that El-Munir won’t be retained, and while I feel he could be a good wingback in a 3-4-3, his defensive lapses don’t translate well to a four-man back line and he’s pricey, so his might be a sacrifice with both another move in mind and with an eye on spending his salary elsewhere. But that’s all conjecture at this point.
What we do know is that Orlando City is coming off a historically bad season and that change is needed. O’Connor has been hired, so it’s only fair he have an opportunity to build a team in the mold he envisions. Whether that will ultimately be successful remains to be seen. This off-season will be another busy one and it’s unlikely O’Connor can fix everything that was broken in just one transfer window, so we’re likely in for another long season in 2019. Whether ownership and the front office will allow O’Connor the requisite time or blow everything up by midseason again if things aren’t going well...time will tell.